Savvy parents 'comparison shop' for schools

Vicki Rosenberg and Eddie Parach definitely agree that they share a philosophical bias in favor of neighborhood public schools. But they are equally adamant that the bias has its limits.

"We want to stay [in the neighborhood public school] but we won't do it to the academic detriment of the kids," says Ms. Rosenberg, sitting on the couch of her family's Saugatuck, Mich., home with son, Aaron, age 7, and his four-year-old sister, Ilana.

That's why, when it came time for Aaron to begin kindergarten, the couple approached it just as they might have handled the purchase of a new car: They went comparison shopping. After reviewing a few alternatives, they called their neighborhood public school and asked, in essence, what can you show us to make us want to stay?

The experience of Ms. Rosenberg and Mr. Parach (they are married but use their own names) is becoming an increasingly common one for contemporary American families. Once upon a time, most people just assumed their kids would head for the public school down the street. But today, many parents think long and hard and review a growing roster of choices before they make that decision.

As a result, public schools in some areas are finding that they can't just sit back and greet the kids as they walk through the door. Some schools are discovering that unless they're out there working hard to bring families in -and offering the kinds of options those families want -they'll be seeing fewer and fewer of them.

The Myerses are among the families who've opted out of the public-school system. They live near the Rosenberg-Parach family in Zeeland, Mich., and began by sending their oldest daughter to their local school. But it soon became clear that she wasn't enjoying her experience and neither were her parents.

"I wanted to be part of my daughter's school experience and at the public school they just didn't want that," says Stephanie Myers. "I wanted a sense of community, a family, where we would all be working together for the children's benefit."

Then the Myers family learned about the Discovery Elementary Charter School, a half hour away in Fennville, Mich. Today all three Myers children attend the school, which their mother calls "a nurturing, caring environment where the teachers care about the kids and not just about getting their paychecks."

Not every parent has as much choice as Michigan families have. The state has 138 charters schools, with interest in these public alternatives continuing to grow. Just in the immediate area of the Saugatuck public schools, there are three charter schools.

Debra Wierenga, who lives in Saugatuck, also pulled two of her children out of public school to attend one of those area charters schools. She has chosen to homeschool her third child, feeling that experience will best meet the child's needs.

Ms. Wierenga says often the choice of a charter school is more a reaction against the public-school experience than it is a positive vote for charters. "I expected the charter-school option would draw more people like myself who read a lot about education and were worried about getting the most out of school," she says.

"But most of the parents I've met at the school are there because they don't like what was happening in the public school. They may not know much about the alternative but they know it is an alternative."

This transition of parents from passive participants in the public-school system into active consumers willing to shop around for a choice that will better meet their needs is clearly having an impact on a number of Michigan school districts, and in many cases, that means making more of an effort to reach out to parents.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the public-school system has not only opened a school with a focus on environmental education and planned a number of other schools built around different themes, but has also hired a director of communications to help keep local parents informed about new choices within mainstream public schools.

The Hartland Consolidated School District has been writing to families who have transferred their children to charter schools to ask for constructive ideas the school system could implement to improve its schools, and to understand how to better serve its constituency.

Saugatuck public schools have also jumped into the competitive fray. Superintendent Tom Nowak is candid about the degree to which the opening of three charter schools within 10 miles of the two district schools has turned up the heat.

"We've certainly become more aware of the needs and wants of parents," he says. "We've had to take public relations seriously, to become more service-oriented, to keep our class sizes small. We've made an effort to offer Spanish, music, art, computer classes in elementary school."

The school system also agreed to create a multi-age classroom after local parents lobbied for that innovation. The desires of the parent group "carried more weight because of the existence of the charter schools," says Nowak. "Our state aid is $7,200 per pupil. That's a significant amount of money." Nowak estimates his two schools have so far lost only about six students to the new charter schools. "But I hate to lose even one," he says.

In the case of the Rosenberg-Parach family, he didn't have to lose. Nowak invited the couple to meet with him and delivered his best pitch about what the public school had to offer. He also encouraged them to spend time with the kindergarten teacher their son would be assigned to.

That proved a selling point. "After hearing the teacher I didn't see how we could go wrong," says Mr. Parach. Aaron is in his third year at his neighborhood public school; Ilana began this year.

But that doesn't mean the Saugatuck schools have any room for complacency. Rosenberg points out that she and her husband remain aware of the charter schools in the area and what they're doing.

"We'd much rather support the public school and support it getting better," she says. But should she begin to feel that it would serve her children's interests to go elsewhere there's no question as to what she'd do.

"We'd rather not walk away," she says. "But we are prepared to do that if we need to."

*E-mail coeymanm@csps.com

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